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You Can Make Your Protest Vote Count. Here’s How


The Trump campaign has been tanking this October. Donald Trump’s numbers have been looking poor in almost every national poll. States ordinarily assumed to be red (Arizona, Utah, Indiana) are turning into battleground states as Hillary Clinton takes advantage of her far superior war chest and ground game. It’s still October, and we probably have not seen the last surprise—but as of now it looks exceedingly unlikely that Donald Trump will be our next president.

Bringing out voters to save congressional seats and other down-ballot candidates is one major project of the moment. If conservative voters are so demoralized they won’t come to the polls, we could be slaughtered in state-level competitions, giving Clinton a free hand to enact her progressive agenda.

It can be tough to motivate Trump-hating voters to take the trouble, so one way to sweeten the incentives might be to remind people that they can still make an important statement with their presidential vote, which might influence the quality of future candidates.

It’s Time for Optics Voting

When it comes to actually choosing the president, a sizable majority of votes are, in a mathematical sense, wasted. But we live in an information age. All the votes get tabulated—and the analysts, campaign strategists, talking heads, and amateur political wonks will spend years breaking down the numbers and arguing their significance. Citizens can potentially send some reasonably nuanced messages nowadays through their voting patterns. Isn’t that a good enough reason to stand up and be counted?

If you hate the main-party candidates anyway, discover the joys of optics voting. Vote in a way that promotes the sort of platform and candidates you would like to see in the future. Since we live in a narrative-obsessed political culture, think about the kind of narrative your vote will help craft.

David Marcus has recently argued that at least for him (as a resident of New York State), a Trump vote is the most reasonable form of protest vote. He doesn’t like Trump. But he knows his state has no chance of going red, and he doesn’t want Hillary Clinton to run away with a landslide popular vote.

I can appreciate that position. Admittedly, it’s very non-ideal for Clinton to seize bragging rights to a 10-million-vote runaway win. Still, my hunch is that, given broader circumstances, Clinton isn’t going to have a very strong presidential mandate, regardless of the popular vote. She is widely known to be dishonest and wildly corrupt. She seems to have bullied and perhaps cheated her way to the top of the Democratic ticket, and many of her party’s voters feel resentful and trapped. The public understands that her victory will say far more about the odiousness of Trump than about her own charms.

We should also recognize that statistics can be sliced and diced in a lot of ways, and will be. Third party votes can make a real statement. Let me attempt to one-up Marcus by proposing a more multi-layered take on optics voting.

What Happens After Election Day

Often, in a confusing or demoralizing election, the disaffected simply decide to vote straight ticket, effectively signaling their support for the party without delving into the details of the candidates. Those “generic Republican” memes have been very present in this election as well, as desperate Republicans try to deflect attention from their awful candidate by pointing to the platform.

There’s a problem with that argument. Trump is anything but a generic Republican. Far from promoting the traditional platform, he has jettisoned many of its core components. This is of course part of his appeal for wrathful populists, but it means that numbers will matter when the party deliberates the extent to which Trumpian strategies should be repeated moving forward.

From the standpoint of an analyst, it really will not be clear whether a Trump vote represents a desire to support a more conventional conservative platform, or a wish to blow up the conventional platform. Undoubtedly, millions of conservative voters (supporters of free trade, religious liberty, federalism, and other traditionally conservative positions) are still going to vote for Trump, with varying levels of awareness that he really does not share their views on these matters. No reasonable person will make the mistake of thinking that all votes for Trump can be counted as votes for Trumpism.

Still, many people are already wondering how Trump’s numbers will compare to Mitt Romney’s, or John McCain’s. If Trump’s numbers are approximately similar to theirs, that will be read as evidence that Trumpism has at least substantial appeal. If they’re notably lower, even facing the prospects of a Clinton candidacy, that will increase pressure to revitalize those elements of the conventional platform that Trump sought to discard.

It’s true that any Trump vote will still narrow the gap between Hillary Clinton and (presumably) her closest challenger. But third-party votes get counted too, and in a nutty election like this, those numbers won’t necessarily get lost in the wind. Consider how much noise Evan McMullin has made by closing the gap in Utah. It’s a great story: the Mormons’ Hail Mary pass! People will definitely remember, long after this freak show of an election is past, that the Mormons rejected Trump with vim and vigor.

How To Finesse the Protest Vote

Suppose you want to send the message: I support the Republicans, but I reject both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Please don’t serve up such loathsome candidates ever again. This is quite possible in our statistic-obsessed age. Vote third party for president, and straight-ticket the rest of the ballot.

Already people are showing considerable interest in the gap between Trump’s support and levels of support for more conventional down-ticket Republicans. For instance: here in Minnesota, Congressman Erik Paulsen seems to be doing well even though Donald Trump is not. His opponent, Terri Bonhoff, has tried to use Trump as a millstone to sink Paulsen. But it’s not working.

If this carries through to Election Day, the voters’ message will be loud and clear. We still support conservative policies, but please, no more Donald Trumps. (Minnesota was anti-Trump from the start, handing Trump his first third-place primary finish on Super Tuesday. After their experiences with Governor Jesse Ventura, Minnesotans know better than to fall for the celebrity campaign.)

One dream scenario of mine would show Trump commanding a sizable share of conservative votes in swing states, while tanking catastrophically in non-swing states. Suppose voters in California, New York, or Oregon voted third party at unprecedented rates, while Ohioans and Floridians held their noses and voted for Trump. That would send a powerful message, and even allow non-swing conservatives to give cover to their swing-state-dwelling, Trump-hating companions.

If the Oregonians and New Yorkers defected from the party in especially large numbers, we could reasonably surmise that many Floridians would have liked to do the same, but for their painful sense of duty in desperately trying to stop Clinton. Conservatives in very blue states often feel that their vote doesn’t matter. That’s one way to make it matter.

You Don’t Have to Feel Voiceless On November 8

Of course, it could be that by Election Day, the bottom will have come out completely from the Trump campaign. In that case, we could all focus on optics voting. The silver lining on a Clinton presidency, in that instance, could be a less-tarnished conservative brand. If the voters dump Trump, it will be far easier for the politicians to follow suit. The claim, “Our party was hijacked and it wasn’t our fault” will be far more credible if we telegraph that at the ballot box.

This isn’t only important in the political realm. It matters for the culture wars, too. Already I’ve more or less resigned myself to a lifetime of hearing “But Trump!” any time a conservative objects to a Democratic candidate on character grounds. It’s especially excruciating with respect to religious conservatives, for whom virtue and honor are ostensibly important.

Some will protest that they prefer to focus on issues, and separate politics from cultural battles. That might be your preference. But if you think the public carefully separates politics from cultural issues, you’re dreaming. Already a substantial share of the public has mentally affixed Trump’s face over America’s religiously conservative population, and concluded that we all have the integrity of prosperity preachers and the good sense of snake handlers. It’s not fair, but it’s politics.

Fighting our way back from that will be a challenge, but perhaps a bit less difficult if we don’t overwhelmingly vote for Trump on election day.

Yes, we’re all feeling demoralized about this election. That’s all the more reason, though, to make your vote count. Go to the polls, and vote your conscience. The wonks will make sure that your message is heard.